2 Polls Span 2 Poles On Testing In Schools

2 Polls Span 2 Poles On Testing In Schools

1:59pm Aug 27, 2015
Two polls suggest public opinion on opting out of testing isn't actually clear.
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Please read the following two sentences carefully. Choose which is correct, A or B.

A. According to a brand-new national poll, two-thirds of the American public supports annual federal testing, and 59 percent oppose letting students opt out of tests, while only 1 in 4 supports opting out.

B. According to a brand-new national poll, two-thirds of the American public thinks there is too much testing in schools. As for opt-outs, they are split, with 44 percent opposing it and 41 percent supporting it.

The answer: C. Both A (poll released Aug. 17 by EdNext) and B (poll released Aug. 24 by Gallup/PDK). The two polls suggest public opinion on this issue isn't clearly staked out.

Two polls suggest public opinion on opting out of testing isn't actually clear.
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Standardized testing is a cornerstone of federal education policy in the U.S. States must test every student every year in math and reading from grades 3-8, and once in high school, and report the results.

These tests — and the many other tests that states and districts add on top of them — have drawn controversy. The pushback has been led by New York state, where 1 in 5 students "opted out" from taking the state tests this past spring. This act of collective civil disobedience may invalidate that state's compliance with federal accountability requirements.

At the same time, the federal law that requires annual testing is up for renewal, and some have proposed amendments that would affirm the right of parents to opt out. So this is the right moment for a national debate.

To understand what's behind a poll, you have to look closely at three questions: Who is asking the question? Whom are they asking? What are they asking?

Both of these polls are large, representative national samples. And their results on other questions, like whether you approve of your local school, are nearly identical. Therefore, it's likely that the mystery can be solved by looking closely at the phrasing of these specific questions on testing.

The poll that found Americans in favor of testing and against opting out was conducted by the education-policy journal Education Next. EdNext has three sponsors: the Fordham Institute, the Hoover Institution at Stanford and Harvard's Kennedy School. Both Fordham and Hoover have been associated with policies such as charter schools, the Common Core State Standards and test-based accountability.

EdNext put the testing question this way:

Do you support or oppose the federal government continuing to require that all students be tested in math and reading each year in grades 3-8 and once in high school?

In the responses, 35 percent of the general public said they "completely" supported annual tests and an additional 32 percent said they "somewhat" supported them, for a total of 67 percent in support.

Gallup, in collaboration with a group called Phi Delta Kappa International, has been conducting polls on education for almost 50 years. And while Gallup is a polling organization that's widely regarded as neutral, PDK is a professional organization for educators that has been associated with policies like more funding for public schools and better professional development for teachers, while being critical of test-based accountability.

On testing, PDK/Gallup asked a very different question:

"In your opinion, is there too much emphasis on standardized testing in the public schools in your community, not enough emphasis on standardized testing, or just the right amount?"

Sixty-four percent of respondents said "too much."

The thing is, it's very possible to agree that there's "too much emphasis on standardized testing" and at the same time support annual federally required tests.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, for one, has spoken in favor of both positions. And the current versions of the No Child Left Behind Act being debated in Congress would maintain annual testing, while including provisions designed to cut back on unnecessary, redundant or poorly designed tests.

"We asked about emphasis on testing," says Joshua Starr, the new executive director of PDK. "That has nothing to do with whether or not kids should take tests every year."

When it comes to opting out, it's a little harder to resolve the apparent contradiction between the two polls.

PDK/Gallup asked:

"Do you think that all parents with children in the public schools should be allowed to excuse their child from taking one or more standardized tests?"

When asked this way, 41 percent said yes and 44 percent said no.

EdNext asked:

"Some people say that ALL students should take state tests in math and reading. Others say that parents should decide whether or not their children take these tests. Do you support or oppose letting parents decide whether to have their children take state math and reading tests?

When asked this way, 25 percent support and 59 percent oppose.

Paul Peterson, the editor-in-chief of EdNext and a professor at Harvard, points to "excuse" as a key word in the other guy's poll that he says is designed to sway people. "We do it all the time — we give students excuses from class for seeing the doctor, or excuses for being tardy. So 'excuses' is a very sweet word." (Starr resists drawing comparisons, saying, "We're considered a really unbiased view of Americans' perspectives.")

At the same time, the EdNext poll mentions that the test is a state requirement, so maybe that makes opting out sound like a bigger deal.

No matter how you slice it, both polls show most people don't support allowing parents to choose whether to opt their children out of tests. And the Gallup Poll says most Americans wouldn't choose to opt out their own kids.

That's interesting because some proposed amendments to No Child Left Behind, as well as several state laws, would grant parents that choice.

If these polls are to be believed, those amendments would appease a small minority of parents at the expense of the majority's belief.

But there's another problem. Getting a permission slip is not what the opt-out movement is actually trying to do.

Based on my reporting and public statements from some leaders of the opt-out movement, the goal of parents in most cases is not just to spare their children the burden of sitting and answering questions for a few hours.

These parents aren't asking for leeway based on families' personal preferences. In their view, they are deliberately breaking the law to force a change in the broader policy.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

New school year, nothing new about the debate that is raging. Is there too much testing, and are teachers teaching to the test? As for where the public stands on these questions, two new polls are out. And they don't seem to offer much clarity. One poll by EdNext, an education journal, found majority support for annual testing as required by federal law. But another poll by Gallup and PDK, a professional association of educators, found most respondents think there is too much emphasis on standardized tests in public schools. We brought in Anya Kamenetz from NPR's Ed team. So just these numbers, look at them here with me. Two-thirds of the public supports annual tests. That's what one poll says. In another, two-thirds of the public thinks there is too much emphasis on standardized tests. What gives here? Can both of these be right?

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Well, you know, they actually can. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is one of the folks who's been on record supporting annual federal tests on the one hand - you know, every kid, math and reading, every year, third through eighth grade - and on the other hand, the idea that there is too much emphasis on testing. And when you say too much emphasis on testing, it's not necessarily talking about these once-a-year tests. But it's talking about all the other tests that students are taking in school - district tests, school-level tests. Even as they go back to school now, they might be taking diagnostic or benchmarking tests. And then, piling on top of those, you know, not just the tests themselves but also the prep and the teaching to the test that some argue is taking over school or the experience of school.

GREENE: So is there some way for educators to find right balance?

KAMENETZ: Well, I think that's the holy grail that everybody is chasing. I think that the educators and the district superintendents that I talked to are trying to figure out ways to, you know, improve their students' performance and have an atmosphere of accountability but not be teaching to the test all the time. I think that the big federal education bill, which is currently being debated in Congress, the House and Senate versions need to be reconciled. They're looking for ways to reduce the emphasis on standardized testing but keep that annual requirement and keep that accountability in place.

GREENE: You know, one thing in these polls, Anya, not a majority but certainly a sizeable number of people saying that they would support the option of opting out totally, their kids not taking tests at all. That movement, I mean, is it really gaining steam in Congress and elsewhere?

KAMENETZ: Well, it's really interesting because it's clearly a vocal minority. On one of these polls, 1 out of 3 public school parents said that they would opt out. They would consider opting out. But, you know, the law says that 95 percent of students have to take these tests. And so in a state like New York, where you had 20 percent of students opting out, that causes a serious problem. And there's been talk of federal sanctions, talk of state-level sanctions. There have been editorial boards coming out and sort of scolding parents for sitting their kids out. And this is really civil disobedience. You know, it's kind of an unusual situation to have parents en masse involved in trying to push back against what federal policy is and what the experts say we should be doing.

GREENE: Anya, just think. I mean, this is such an emotional issue for so many parents, so many people in this country. And so many people just seem undecided in terms of where they stand.

KAMENETZ: It's really true, David. You know, this is a democracy. And we want everybody's opinion. At the same time, it's so easily, you know, based on people's personal experience with their own kids in school. And I think it's pretty hard to resolve.

GREENE: Anya Kamenetz from NPR's Ed team. Thanks as always, Anya.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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